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Abortion Debate in Australia Has a New Element: Women in Power

A rally in support of proposed changes to Queensland’s abortion laws in Brisbane, Australia, on Sunday.Credit...Glenn Hunt/EPA, via Shutterstock

BRISBANE, Australia — Activists in the Australian state of Queensland have tried for decades to scrap a criminal code from 1899 that makes having an abortion an offense punishable with prison time, and for decades their efforts have failed.

But as the state Parliament again considers whether to decriminalize abortion, advocates say this time may be different: Women will be leading the debate.

In a state known for its history of conservatism, the Queensland Parliament has achieved a striking level of representation for women: The premier, the head of the government, is a woman, the first in Australia to be elected to two terms. Her deputy is a woman, and so is half of her cabinet. And, in another first, the opposition is also led by a woman.

“This bill is closer than we’ve ever been,” said Daile Kelleher, the manager of Children by Choice, a nonprofit that helps women navigate unplanned pregnancies. “This is certainly the first time we’ve seen female leaders on both sides of the policy.”

The increased presence of women has so far mostly contributed to a shift in the working culture of Parliament, including implementing more “family friendly” sitting hours, breaking from a tradition of frequent long nights followed by early mornings.

The abortion vote, which is expected this week, has emerged as a test of whether women in power can drive policy on issues that directly affect them, but which have long been legislated by men. Political analysts said the proposal would not have come this far without the influence of women, including the willingness of the conservative opposition leader to let her members vote their conscience.

“It has to actually mean something,” said Dianne Farmer, the minister for child safety, youth and women, referring to the number of women in the state’s Parliament. “You have to make that matter, and I think we consider it our mandate to actually form policies that are supportive of women.”

The role of gender in politics has been the subject of considerable attention around the world amid efforts to draw more women into running for office. In the United States, there has been a rush of candidates running in November’s midterm elections, and women there have won more primaries than ever before. In Australia, the conversation has centered on a paucity of women in federal politics, and a political culture rife with sexism, intimidation and bullying.

Annastacia Palaszczuk, the premier of Queensland, where women make up half the cabinet.Credit...Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

This year, Tasmania’s government became one of the first to have a majority-women cabinet, and in Victoria, nearly 40 percent of Parliament members are women. In Queensland, women make up roughly a third of Parliament, with the cabinet evenly divided between men and women. The opposition leader, Deb Frecklington, is also the first woman to lead the Liberal National Party in Queensland.

Ms. Frecklington has said that while she is not personally in favor of the proposed legislation, she will allow members to vote without party guidance. In a statement, she said the “longstanding position” of the Liberal National Party was that “matters about the creation and ending of life are treated as matters of conscience.”

In the past, decriminalization efforts gained little traction. An attempt to overturn the law last year was withdrawn before lawmakers could even vote.

The century-old code — copied and pasted from a British law that was itself overturned some 50 years ago — is rarely prosecuted, and allows for limited exceptions, such as when a mother’s physical or mental health is threatened. Still, proponents of the change said they were motivated by the rare instances when the authorities investigate such cases. In 2009, a 19-year-old woman faced criminal charges after officials said she used medication smuggled from Ukraine to induce a miscarriage.

Over the last decade, most of Australia’s states and territories have loosened restrictions on abortion. The proposal in Queensland would allow a pregnancy to be terminated up to 22 weeks, create 150-meter zones around clinics where activists are forbidden from protesting and require doctors who object to performing abortions to refer a patient elsewhere.

The debate in Queensland turns on familiar talking points. But people on both sides of the issue have acknowledged a difference that has come from women driving a conversation informed by their own experiences. Ms. Frecklington compared it to when the state Parliament considered domestic violence legislation, with at least one member describing abuse she faced in deeply personal terms.

“It certainly, in my opinion, does shift the debate,” Ms. Frecklington said.

The political landscape in Queensland has been all the more surprising given its history of conservatism and a hard-to-shake reputation outside the state for being backward. It is arguably the most decentralized state, with a population spread across territory that stretches from Australia’s eastern coast, with urban centers like Brisbane, across arid farmland to the outback, and north to the tropical coastline by the Great Barrier Reef.

The increase in the number of women running for Parliament, and their ascent into leadership roles, took decades.

Initially, women ran for marginal seats, on the assumption that it would be politically dangerous for them to pursue safer ones. “That’s definitely not the case now,” said Annastacia Palaszczuk, the premier since 2015. “That culture has started to change.”

State lawmakers said the number of women in government made for a stark contrast from federal politics, where women recently complained about bullying and intimidation during back-room negotiations after the ouster of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

An anti-abortion rally in Brisbane last month. The vote is expected to be close.Credit...Glenn Hunt/EPA, via Shutterstock

Julie Bishop, who resigned as foreign minister after losing to Scott Morrison in her bid to become prime minister, said her colleagues’ behavior “would not be tolerated in any other workplace in Australia.”

The push to reshape the culture in Canberra, the federal capital, led to a renewed debate over instituting quotas as a way to bring more women into the fold. The strategy has been rejected by many in the Liberal Party, but Labor has relied on mandated targets for years.

The Labor Party’s constitution requires half of the offices held by the party to be filled by women by 2025.

In the federal Parliament, Labor is the opposition, but in Queensland the party is in the majority. There, Ms. Palaszczuk’s Labor government has also boasted of its efforts to bring about greater gender diversity on state boards and offices beyond Parliament.

Still, advancement has come at a painstaking pace, said Tanja Kovac, a senior official at Emily’s List Australia, an organization that supports progressive women running for office.

The efforts might appear to be incremental, but she remained enthusiastic. “We’re coming,” she said, “whether you like it or not.”

The opposition Liberal National Party has lagged behind Labor in adding women to its ranks. Ros Bates, the shadow health minister, said there was no shortage of capable women, but that the party could do more to prepare them. “We need to establish a pathway for women,” she said.

“We need to make sure they’re preselected for winnable seats,” she added. “Both sides of politics need to encourage, identify them, and mentor them, nurture them.”

The number of women may have little bearing on the outcome of the abortion vote, which is expected to be close. But observers are anticipating a debate that reflects a level of nuance and understanding that a more male-dominated legislature would not.

Nevertheless, one fixture of Parliament seems unlikely to change: a robust debate, in which members direct barbs at one another. Some figured the infusion of women might make politics less combative. Ms. Frecklington was not so sure.

“When I heckle or get heckled,” she said, “I’m sure we don’t do it in a ‘soft and gentle’ way.”

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